With Vladimir Putin back in power in Russia, understanding him is more important than ever. Two recent books attempt to unravel the mystery, adding new insight into the Russian leader's life and rule. But by trying to comprehend Putin through his personal history, they miss the true heart of the story: the state he built.
The glasnost ceiling: Pussy Riot, a feminist, anti-Putin punk bank, protesting in Moscow, January 2012 (Reuters / Denis Sinyakov)
With their roving camps, human chains, and white ribbons, the antigovernment protesters who have filled Moscow's streets since Russia's disputed legislative elections last December have shaken the old certainties about politics in the Putin era. More than any other event since President Vladimir Putin's rise to power 12 years ago, the protests have put the Kremlin on the defensive.
Yet the urban activists who have appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world constitute at most a tiny fraction of the Russian population -- a few hundred thousand people in a country of 143 million. The big question that will determine Russia's political future is how much support this politicized vanguard can hope for from the quiet majority that lives outside Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Few observers -- either in Russia's metropolises or abroad -- seem to understand this group very well. The stereotype of the provincial Russian is of a politically apathetic conformist who is resentful of pampered Muscovites, socially conservative, generally pro-Putin, suspicious of the West, and nostalgic for Soviet order.
Yet thanks to new data, a more nuanced picture of the Russian mainstream is starting to emerge. Between March and May, the Moscow-based Center for Strategic Research (CSR) conducted 62 focus groups with residents of 16 Russian regions, stretching from Kaliningrad, on the Polish border, to the town of Novotroitsk, about 1.5 miles from Kazakhstan. Focus groups were carried out in Moscow and one other large city, Yekaterinburg, in the Urals; in medium-sized cities, including Vladimir, Tolyatti, and Astrakhan; and in small towns, such as Chernogolovka, in the Moscow region. The standard size of the focus groups was ten individuals. For comparison, one focus group consisted of Muscovites who had taken part in recent protests. Discussion leaders asked the participants, who varied in age, gender, education, and social and economic status, about their political values, policy concerns, and assessments of current and potential leaders.
This is a premium article
Buy PDFBuy a premium PDF reprint of this article.
SubscribeSubscribe and get premium access to ForeignAffairs.com.